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Update: Rights of the Sri Lanka migrant workers in the Middle East during the pandemic

Sri Lanka Brief Up Date/ 03 June 2020

Rights of the migrant workers in the Middle East during the pandemic

1. The estimated number of overseas Sri Lankan workers is 1.5 million and 1.2 million of these are in the Middle East. The majority of the 1.2 million Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East and 80 percent are stationed in Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar.

2. The four countries where most of the Sri Lanka migrant workers are stationed have much higher numbers of Covid-19 cases as of 02 June 2020.


Total Cases

Total Cases per 1 M. population

Sri Lanka












Saudi Arabia



3. The Kuwaiti government, on April 21 granted an amnesty for undocumented expatriates to return to their countries without any fines or travel cost due to the pandemic. More than 19,000 undocumented Sri Lanka expatriates have registered for the amnesty programme. In other middle eastern countries too hundreds of Sri Lankan workers had registered to return home.

It was reported that as at 27 May, 42,522 persons from 123 countries were seeking to return to Sri Lanka. Of these, migrant workers amounted to 34,881, of which 20,893 are living in the Middle East, while 4,961 were short-term visa holders and 2,016 were students.

4. In the 3 week of May 466 of them were flown back on two Kuwait Airways flights free of charge. According to the Minster of Health out of this 466 returnees 330 were Covid19 patients. From 270 arrived from Qatar 150 are reportedly Covid19 patients, she further stated.

5. A leading Government minister while participating in a TV talk show blamed the Kuwait Government for “sending Corona bombs” to Sri Lanka.

6. On 29 May Sri Lanka Sri Lanka blamed Kuwait for acting in violation of the World Health Organisation’s – International Health Regulations (IHR), by returning foreign nationals infected with COVID-19 back to their home countries. “Under the International Health Regulations or IHR that has been signed by all members of the World Health Organisation; returning of infected patients violates the IHR,” told Dr. Anil Jasinghe, the Director-General of Health Services in Sri Lanka.

7. In response the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kuwait reaffirmed Sri Lanka that no Sri Lankan passenger with COVID-19 symptoms has been allowed to board the aircraft which brought them to Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Relations said.

8. In the last week of May the Government of Sri Lanka stopped planned air flights to bring Sri Lankan migrant workers back home from the Middle East. The decision was made after it was discovered that many were infected with the coronavirus. On May 26, President Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s media division announced that a “new mechanism is to be formulated to repatriate Sri Lankans.” Information about the “new mechanism” has not yet been released. On 27 May Army Commander Shavendra Silva, head of the National Operation Centre for the Prevention of COVID-19, told the media that “If more Sri Lankans were repatriated from Middle Eastern (ME) countries,” he said, “there’s the possibility of more infected patients.”

9. The Sri Lankan workers, many of whom are destitute and currently staying in unsafe and overcrowded accommodation, even staged a protest outside the Sri Lankan embassy in Kuwait. Several workers spoke out on a YouTube video calling on Colombo to get them back home. A Sri Lankan printer in Sharjah, a city in the United Arab Emirates, has told a web media that his salary was cut by 50 percent last month and then reduced by 40 percent in May.

10. According to the MFA Sri Lanka, the greatest vulnerability is in the Maldives, but particularly in Greater Male where a red alert has been declared by the Maldivian Government, which has explicitly requested foreign governments to evacuate their citizens. There are approximately 7,000 Sri Lankan workers are seeking repatriation from the Maldives and almost 2,000 are in Greater Male. They have not being repatriated yet.

11. Meanwhile a Sri Lankan woman who appeared in a video on social media insulting Kuwait’s decision to take steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus and the Kuwait Amir was arrested by Securitymen of Cyber Crime Department. She has been referred to concerned authorities for legal action.

Unconfirmed social media posts says that she has been sentenced to 5 years in prison. The video which is available on line shows that while praising President Rajapaksa as a hero for combatting the pandemic she insults Kuwait Amir in harsh words.

12. There are no reliable stats on how many Sri Lankan oversees workers in Middle East have died due to the pandemic.

13. Sri Lankan migrant workers in the Middle East who wants to return home on various reasons face untold sufferings during the lock downs. They are stigmatized in the home country and neglected in some of the host countries. In number of countries they do not entitled to proper health care. Sri Lanka must request host countries to abide by international health regulations and uphold rights of both documented and undocumented migrant workers.


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